A Fallout Fumble
At E3 2018, Fallout 76’s reveal left people surprised, confused, and anxious about what a multiplayer Bethesda experience would entail. Plenty of opinions were formed, mostly worrisome, from the game’s B.E.T.A. (Break-it Early Test Application) program. Product does little to alleviate concerns at launch, and it has plenty of technical bugs and frustrating mechanics. Yet, Bethesda still managed to create a sprawling world full of surprises, small details and personal stories, for those who enjoy consuming the minutia, and a shockingly undemanding progression system with a fun and flexible perk system. It’s the latest example of a packaged game designed with the promise of possible ideas and future features that may eventually make it feel like a complete product. Unfortunately, we must grade this initial draft.
Vault 76, your starting shelter, was one of the first to open its doors after the nuclear fallout, tasking its inhabitants with reclaiming and re-colonizing the land. The West Virginia setting uses its Appalachian mountain inspiration to play with elevation, but there are also swamps, ashen remains of a city, and a variety of other environments to explore. Each one provides unique florae and faunae to collect and hunt. Wandering off the beaten path and away from the campaign trail, in true Bethesda fashion, yields some interesting and unexpected locations littered with unique rewards, whether they be equipment, crafting plans, or proverbial bread crumbs that lead you to a grander quest. However, the map is so expansive that there are also plenty of moments spent wandering from one mission icon to the next, each one accentuating the loneliness one may feel in this world.
Much of this comes from the fact that, during my time, there was not a single human NPC alive. Quests are given through robots, recordings on holotapes, and letters left by their former owners. This amounts to your character running around solving cold cases, cleaning up messes, and finishing to-do lists. The missions, though interesting, lack any semblance of personal connection. There’s no communicating with an interesting cast of characters, no reputation system in play, and no moral development. You’re basically a hollow husk without a voice acting as a puppet for the player. This strips away any emotional investment you might have in your character and makes the journey all about statistical progression.
The social aspect comes in the form of interacting with other players wandering the wasteland, a new concept for Bethesda, and one that comes with a fair share of pros and cons. Griefers and trolls can easily break the immersion by trailing you without yield and pelting you with bullets. The PvP system keeps this one-sided damage miniscule, unless you succumb to the taunts and fire back, accepting the duel to the death. However, aside from just one such incident, most of my encounters with other players have been either indifferent or cordial. One good Samaritan watched me clumsily fashion my first C.A.M.P. site, where I used gathered materials to build workstations, a fire pit, a water pump, and a cozy shack with a comfortable bed. There is a vast construction system with practical and superficial furniture to fashion. After posing for a picture, my new supervisor friend plopped down a brown paper bag filled with recipes, guns, and purified water, gave me an emote cheer, and went on his merry way. As the game moves beyond the initial launch influx, I suspect more of these cooperative encounters will take place, infusing Fallout 76 with user-created exploits that a scripted AI cannot provide. But with only 24 players per server wandering around the massive map, the chances of random meetings are infrequent, which is why teaming up with a friend or few is the ideal way to play. It means you get to enjoy their company and get statistical perks.
Your character’s progression is a polished bright spot in Fallout 76’s rusted world. The SPECIAL stats determine your proficiency in ability scores, such as Strength and Intelligence, which affect things like carry weight and computer hacking ability, respectively. But beyond the concrete scores, you’ll also collect Perk Cards through leveling up and opening randomly-filled Perk Card Packs. Placing these cards with their corresponding ability loads your character with useful passive buffs, such as an increased chance to find extra loot or the ability to take less radiation from food and drinks. Doubles of specific cards can be used to upgrade the tier of that card for an improved bonus. It is fantastic and completely flexible system that lets you swap out your cards at any time to tailor your character to specific situations.
The dull spot of Fallout 76 is undoubtedly its visuals, and not just because this is a post-nuclear wasteland. My first stroll through the forest brought back the nostalgia of collecting plants in Skyrim, which tells my Bethesda has done little to update its decades-old engine. Animations and combat are stiff and unwieldy, and technical bugs are plentiful. I’ve seen feral ghouls’ bodies contort, items that are unable to be picked up, and game freezes aplenty, among other things. And although the Pip-Boy is a sacred piece of Fallout tradition, its clunky inventory UI needs some serious quality of life improvements. Thankfully, the ability to quickly scrap junk items into crafting materials and favorite frequently used items to a radial wheel keeps me from spending hours managing my inventory. To Bethesda’s credit, despite the rough close inspection of the visuals, distant panoramic views are gorgeous and not a single area feels copied and pasted.
The aural ambience is also nicely integrated, with brooks babbling and birds chirping amongst the forest and suffocating silence within buildings. Your Pip-Boy comes equipped with an Oldies station, classical music, and a few other choice spots on the radio dial. Turning it off showcases Bethesda’s skill with orchestral background music, with each subtle melody befitting the current locale. The sound department is not without its issues, though. Locating monsters with your ears is unreliable, as the game rarely places their hostile cries in the right location at the right volume. Also, the voice recordings on the holotapes are tied to the FX slider, and even at their highest volume are drowned out by any other noises. These stories are also far too long, forcing me to hunker down, idle for several minutes just to hear the woeful tales.
Bethesda claims that the Fallout 76 servers will last “forever” and, while it may not take that long to patch bugs and improve the experience, my foray with the launch version has left me with an abundance of bullet points that need attention. My biggest hope is that Bethesda will take our suggestions and criticisms as a call to action to tweak the faulty mechanics and build more features into a game that has a ton of potential.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.6 Graphics
Fallout 76 uses a noticeably outdated graphics engine, but the sprawling world still has some gorgeous vistas and is full of detailed touches that give every location personality 3.6 Control
The camera controls are sufficiently tuned for an open-world first-person RPG, but combat is clunky and the inventory UI needs a serious overhaul 3.9 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Beautifully appropriate background music and authentic tracks are available on your Pip-Boy playlist. Sound effects, however, are wildly erratic, and voice recordings are too long and too soft 4.0 Play Value
Multiplayer integration shows that Bethesda is out of its comfort zone. However, the game’s secrets still beg you to unravel them, and there is the promise that Fallout 76 could eventually evolve into something fantastic 3.7 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|